Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

There are a few simple truths, universally acknowledged, that exist to hamper (perceived) perfection. I’m not about to impart anything more than a few simple clichés, but please, read on. If you straighten you hair, it will rain. If you want to wear glasses, you’ll have prefect eyesight. If you’re trying to impress a cute boy (or girl), you’ll do something embarrassing. If you decide you want to be a ballerina, you’ll either be too short or tall.

Most importantly, have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it. Or so says Salvador Dali. Clearly a wise, level-headed man, no? This is a lesson Joan Joyce learns the hard way. Or maybe the easy way, depending on your perspective…

I’ll admit I tried, perhaps not as hard as I should have, to come up with something to say other than Maggie Shipstead astonishes me. I failed (sorry, this girl just wants to have puns). Nevertheless, it’s true. Maggie’s debut novel Seating Arrangements was one of my favorite books of 2012. I’ve been looking forward to Astonish Me, her second novel, and I’m happy to say it is a worthy successor.

Astonish Me

Joan is our anti-heroine. She is a good ballet dancer, but she’ll never be great. Due to a combination of skill, desire, and genetics, she’ll never move beyond the corps (the background dancers for those – like me – not in the know). After ending a turbulent affair with a Russian dancer, whom she helps defect, she goes to Chicago to seduce her best friend. She winds up pregnant, leaves ballet, and they marry. The following years, as the novel moves through the ‘70s,’80s, and ‘90s and back again, focuses on Joan’s dolorous state of mind, her son Harry’s burgeoning obsession with ballet, and her tense marriage to Jacob. Woven in is her complicated friendship with neighbors Sandy, Gary, and their daughter Chloe.

Where Shipstead is most successful is in capturing the detail and nuance of complicated family dynamics – what’s said and, often more importantly, what’s not. As she tells the story of Joan, Jacob, Harry, and Chloe, we learn the price of perfection and failure and, frankly, that the lessons we learn while attempting to achieve perfection are far more interesting than actually being perfect. The novel can be convoluted as it moves back and forth between various characters and time periods  – choreographed, if you will – and although this set-up doesn’t always work, it’s a compelling read. My favorite part? The sliver of hope at the end of the novel… 3.5/5.

Did anyone else want to be a ballerina when they were little? Or maybe you’ve learned a epigrammatic life lesson on the impossibility of perfection? I never specifically took ballet, but I did have to take it as part of my training for gymnastics. Shipstead fully admits to not having any talent for ballet, beyond that of a five year old, but being fascinating by that world nonetheless.

Chocolate Cake
Sandy, who is jealous of Joan, constantly tries to fatten her up – starting with a Double Fudge Cake (recipe via

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  • Kate @ booksaremyfavouriteandbest

    Hey there, you beat me to punch on this one (my review is almost done, but pesky mid-semester exams are getting in the way!).

    I didn’t love it as much as Seating Arrangements – I’ll let you read the reasons why when I get to publishing my review 😉

    • Rory

      Like I said (on your post), I didn’t love it as Seating Arrangements either. But it’s sort of hard to top that…

  • Annabel Smith

    Squeee! I didn’t know she had a new one out. Sl glad to hear it didn’t disappoint. can’t wait.

    • Rory

      I didn’t like it as much as her debut (but I LOVED her debut), but it is still very compelling, minus the timeline issue.

  • Heather

    I really enjoyed Seating Arrangements, too, and can’t wait to read this one (and not only because I was a ballet dancer, myself). Good to hear that you loved it.

    • Rory

      I didn’t love it as much as Seating Arrangements, but I think that has more to do with the fact that Seating Arrangements is exactly the kind of book I love. This one is solidly good, if a bit melodramatic (which seems fitting for the professional ballet world).

  • Kelly

    Can I just say I love the word choice in this post? (epigrammatic, dolorous…) I completely missed Seating Arrangements and thereafter heard some mixed reviews. I’d like to read it eventually, though – especially in light of Astonish Me coming out. I can see what you mean about the set up but it’s good to know that conceptually there are lot of great ideas here.

    • Rory

      Thank you! 🙂

      Seating Arrangements has a very dry sort of humor, it was maybe a cross between John Irving and Richard Russo, if you’ve ever read those authors. I’d highly recommend it, but I can see where some would find it ridiculous.

  • Charleen

    Between this and Katie’s review at Words for Worms, I think I have to read this book.

    (I also think I need to watch Center Stage again…)

    • Rory

      It should embarass me that I still love Center Stage and its over the top pop-ish soundtrack, but I do. Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and whatever happened to Jamiroquai…? Not to mention the likes of Mandy Moore – a fellow (former) New Hampshire resident. New Hampshire takes its celebrities however it can get them. Dan Brown is also from New Hampshire. A gifted state indeed…

  • April @ The Steadfast Reader

    Ha! I love the chocolate cake recipe at the end. 🙂

    • Rory

      I just need someone to bake it for me. High altitude baking continually eludes me.

      • April @ The Steadfast Reader

        If we ever move to high altitude… I’m never cooking/baking again… I’m really quite a bad baker, it’s because I don’t believe in exact measurements. 🙂

  • Words for Worms

    You are eloquent, as always, Rory. But what I really want to know is… If you were a gymnast, can you still do a back flip?! Because THAT is pretty much the coolest thing ever.

    • Rory

      Thanks! Doubtful. I can, however, still do a back walkover and a decent handstand.

  • tanya (52 books or bust)

    I fear that I am the only person who didn’t love Astonish Me. Maybe it was because I loved Seating Arrangements so much. Also I’ve never been a ballet lovin’ kind of girl.

    • Rory

      I didn’t love it either, but I liked it. I had the same problem as you, I absolutely LOVED Seating Arrangements. It would be tough to follow-up such a spectacular debut. I liked Astonish Me, but it’s a bit too melodramatic for me. It lacked a lot of the levity I enjoyed in Seating Arrangements.

  • Catherine

    Like several other commenters I just read this and am working on a review. You captured my concerns perfectly- maybe I’ll just link to your review!

    The brownie recipe from Sandy to Joan- that’s a classic. There was no ambiguity between the two of them!

    • Rory

      Please do (if you feel so inclined). It’s a rare day when I turn down the opportunity to include chocolate baked goods.

  • Shannon @ River City Reading

    I still haven’t read Seating Arrangements (though I recently bought a copy and definitely need to get to it, especially after seeing all of this praise), but I have a soft spot for anything about ballet so something tells me this will work for me.

  • Ann @ Books on the Table

    Wonderful review! I waited to read it until after I’d written my own review. It sounds like we pretty much felt the same way. I’m with you — I absolutely adored Seating Arrangements, which is the kind of book I gravitate towards. But I so admire Maggie Shipstead for writing something very different.

  • Allison @ The Book Wheel

    Sadly, I put this book down but will probably pick it up again. I LOVED Seating Arrangements but had a hard time with this one. As for whether I wanted to be a ballerina… I did! But I stubbornly quit when my ballet teacher got pregnant (how dare she!) and stopped teaching. I danced to Tiny Tutu Tots, can still do half of the moves, and have a ton of photos 🙂

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